Even in the best of circumstances, juggling family caregiving often falls to women. Then along came COVID-19. Seemingly overnight, all of us had yet another, potentially deadly layer added to the delicate balance of self, family and career.
We’ve been working from home, caring for young children, supervising distance learning, managing care for elderly friends and relatives and watching helplessly as loved ones were hospitalized alone.
Day to day
Roughly 53 million Americans, mostly women, serve as unpaid caregivers to adult family members and friends. Some are “compound caregivers,” responsible for their own families along with navigating the needs of older friends or relatives. AARP’s “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” reports that nearly one in five adults care for a family member who is ill or disabled. Roughly 60% of them also work.
In 2017, AARP estimated that frail Americans receive care with a value of $470 billion in unpaid assistance. The pandemic undoubtedly increased those numbers significantly and has brought this essential but hidden work into the light.
We now know to mask, wash our hands and socially distance to avoid catching an airborne virus. Families have reached deep into their personal networks and finances to provide for their loved ones and keep households afloat. Budgeting and estate planning have come to the forefront and sadly, death planning has as well. Unemployment has skyrocketed. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) families were most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent layoffs. Many essential workers kept their jobs, only to find themselves and their households at risk for the illness due to their public-facing roles.
Some households welcomed family and friends during quarantine. We’ve all become teachers, independent employees and experts in using Zoom and Google Meet, coordinating classes, work groups and family visits. Some of us have set up quarantine spaces in our homes and become medical workers ourselves for infected family members. Some congregate care residents had to return home from quarantined or understaffed facilities.
Throughout the past year, we’ve had to let go of our notion of progress to focus on resilience and being good enough. Family caregivers have had to set a positive tone and keep themselves safe and in good spirits while tending to others, wherever they were. This willingness to step up and make things work is the hallmark of caregivers. We would not have gotten through the past year without this labor of love.
As with everything, the pandemic has brought unexpected good things like more time to connect with loved ones, opportunity for home improvement projects and a greater appreciation for our parks and lands. Zoom and other remote meeting software are now household staples, and they will go with us into the future.
Simplifying, even while working harder, has caused a fundamental shift in our restless American culture. Our work-life balance and family support policies will continue to shift as well.
Second year of the pandemic: pacing ourselves
As vaccines roll out, what can family caregivers expect in the second year of COVID-19? For all of us, there is a sense of relief as more and more people get vaccinated. We will continue to rely on support networks for family needs. We will continue to do what women and caregivers have always done, but more so.
There is a strong desire to return to the way things were before COVID-19, although we’re not there yet. Employees are slowly returning to pre-pandemic working conditions, although many jobs will stay remote. The federal government continues to help states and individuals with policy improvements and disaster relief. Masking and distancing will still be with us as new cases and virus variants continue to circulate.
By 2022, we may get to a “new normal,” while numbers and outbreaks are watched closely throughout the world. We will continue to learn about the virus and hopefully achieve some form of herd immunity. Older and medically fragile folks will likely still need to be vigilant about COVID-19 for the next few years.
It will be a long haul, so it’s important for caregivers to pace themselves and get some down time where possible. Getting your house in order, from finances and operations to medical directives, will certainly help. It might be time to consider getting longterm care insurance for yourself or a family member and to plan your own retirement. The pandemic has brought all of these back-burner issues of family life front and center. We will likely continue to see deaths and long-term health issues for COVID-19 survivors well into the next few years and possibly decades.
Thank a caregiver
The first quarter of 2021 gave caregivers and their families time to pause and take a deep breath. While we mourn the many losses of the year, we can also feel good about all we have learned and all we have done for each other. We now see the family work of women and all caregivers in a new way. We know our health and human services systems have undergone a stress test through the pandemic and need massive improvement. The twin goals of health and economic equity for people and families of color, who have been most adversely affected by the pandemic, have never been more important.
If you know someone providing intensive family support, refer them to local agencies for respite or see how you can help. Speak to your representatives about public policy changes and improved laws for all caregivers and their families. Take time for self-care, gratitude and reflection now that vaccines are within reach. Each of us makes up a strand of that web of support that is community, whether local or remote. The stronger the web, the stronger each of us will be in the years ahead.
- Minnesota provides many resources for caregiver training and support. People are asked to step into roles that require significant medical, financial and counseling skills. Being able to take these on with confidence, or at least familiarity, lessens burnout and family tension.
- The Minnesota Board on Aging has online training for family caregivers: mn.gov/board-on-aging/connect-to-services/family-caregiving
- Olmsted County and SE Minnesota have robust support networks for family caregivers. The Southeast Minnesota Area Agency on Aging is one such resource: semaaarochestermn.org/caregivers
- The Elder Network provides practical support for family caregivers and aging family members: elder-network.org/faqs-resources.php
- The United Way of Olmsted County works with a variety of local organizations to help caregivers and families: uwolmsted.org/health